Mr Hu’s departure appeared to illustrate how Xi’s supremacy has been aided by a generational shift in power. Jiang Zemin, the 96-year-old who led the Communist Party from 1989 to 2002, did not appear at all among the nearly 2,300 delegates in the Great Hall of the People, either during the opening on October 16 or during the opening on October 22 . the closing sessions of the party congress.
Mr Xi has set the stage to extend his rule into a second decade, and on Saturday the Communist Party announced new names for some top posts as some of his rivals head for retirement. The congress provides a rare vantage point to observe party elders, who have traditionally played a behind-the-scenes role in power maneuvers, as Mr. Xi, 69, breaks with recent precedent and positions himself to- and extend the reign.
Halfway through the otherwise carefully choreographed closing session, Mr. Hu was helped from his seat next to Mr. Xi and inexplicably led out of the room. During the opening session of the congress on October 16, Mr. Hu’s ashen appearance and gray mop of hair stood out, and to some China observers they appeared to illustrate his fading relevance in the Xi era.
Footage shot by foreign media in the hall, which was not included in the official China Central Television broadcast, showed Mr. Hu apparently reluctant or unable to stand up when an aide tried to lift him from his chair. In the commotion, Mr. Xi leaned over to Mr. Hu and appeared to speak to him. Mr. Hu was ushered from the center stage, briefly glancing back at Mr. Xi and patting outgoing Premier Li Keqiang on the shoulder as he left.
It was not clear why Mr. Hu left or where he went. The incident went unmentioned in Chinese state media coverage of the event. China’s State Council did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
On Twitter, the Xinhua news agency suggested that Mr. Hu’s problem was health-related. In English, indicating that the report was aimed at an international audience, the government-run agency said Mr. Hu “was not feeling well during the session” and left to rest in a room near the meeting venue. “Now he is much better” said the account.
Mr. Hu’s decade-long tenure as party leader and president was notable for a collective leadership of China that Mr. Xi abandoned after taking power in 2012, although Mr. Hu is not known to have ever publicly commented on the strategy policy of his successor.
He was shown on Saturday’s CCTV vote with other delegates, but the commentary and video of him leaving the meeting room could not be found.
Retired party elders rarely appear in public but retain influence in China, and their presence at major party events can signal regime continuity. Mr. Jiang in particular has also at times been a counterweight to his successors, Mr. Hu and Mr. Xi, according to political analysts.
Mr Jiang attended the 2017 Communist Party congress and, like Mr Hu, has an official watchdog role, with a seat on a 46-member Presidium Standing Committee, along with Mr Xi, the party leader.
Mr. Jiang’s absence this year is sure to fuel questions about his fragility. His American biographer, Robert Lawrence Kuhn, said rumors of Mr. Jiang’s “imminent death continue” – as they have for several years.
Age may be the most likely explanation for Mr. Jiang’s absence.
He also missed the Communist Party’s centenary in July 2021 and last appeared in public during Beijing’s National Day celebrations in October 2019, when his giant portrait was carried in a parade.
Victor Shih, an expert on elite Chinese politics at the University of California San Diego, noted by email that Mr. Jiang has needed assistance for some time. He also said that early in his tenure, Mr. Xi targeted military officials close to Mr. Jiang in his anti-corruption crusade, leaving the former leader with no choice but to keep a low profile.
At the party congress five years ago, Mr. Jiang provided a sharp break in the spectacle of cadres staring blankly ahead as he used a large, illuminated magnifying glass to sift through the pages of the party’s work report. During a three-hour speech by Mr. Xi, Mr. Jiang also yawned and appeared to be dozing.
Other notable absences from this year’s congress included former premier Zhu Rongji, who turns 94 on Monday and is credited with setting China’s economy on a path toward opening up to the world. Other no-shows were a pair of former Politburo Standing Committee members Wu Bangguo and Luo Gan, both 81 years old.
Attempts to assess whether the appearances of certain elders actually matter in Chinese officialdom is a reflection of how party secrecy fuels rumours.
Except for those Chinese officials who end up in prison, cadres dye their hair black, so Mr. Hu’s graying had already awakened, before his departure, that the color was a subtle signal that his time as a party force was over.
“Mr. Hu’s appearance suggests a very sedentary lifestyle, but it is not clear whether it is voluntary or not,” Mr. Shih said.
How old people cheer is also being watched for clues, such as the case of an official who helped retire Mr. Jiang 20 years ago, Li Ruihuan. Mr Li stood out on October 16 for appearing not to applaud as Mr Xi entered the hall right in front of him.
“Li currently has little influence in the government, so his public display of discontent should be tolerated. He may not be allowed to appear at the next congress,” Shih said.
One old man demonstrated his support for Mr Xi by attending the opening on October 16 – staunch conservative Song Ping, who at 105 is older than the party itself.
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